Most people who encountered Bekah and Derrick Quirin along the Appalachian Trail thought they were out on a day hike with their baby.
Then they got up close. They saw the dirt. They caught a whiff of the couple, that aroma of people who have been walking for miles and haven’t showered in days.
That’s when they learned the Quirins were through-hiking the trail with their 1-year-old daughter, Ellie. The Roanoke family completed the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail this summer.
“She’s a really happy baby, and she loves being outside,” Bekah Quirin said. “She just flourished out there on the trail.”
Ellie is the first known baby to complete the Appalachian Trail. She technically didn’t hike it, because she spent most of the trek in a child backpack.
Also, because of her age, Ellie wasn’t permitted to summit Katahdin, the trail’s majestic mountain terminus in Maine. The title of youngest through-hiker belongs to Christian Thomas, also known as “Buddy Backpacker,” who walked the trail in 2013 with his family at the age of 5.
The Quirins, both 26, are outdoorsy people. They have degrees in outdoor leadership and years of trail experience. They’ve managed recreation programs in South Carolina, where they lived before moving back to the Roanoke Valley, and are trained as wilderness first responders.
“We thought about how we could incorporate Ellie into that lifestyle early on,” Bekah Quirin said. “We had to adjust our lifestyle when we had a baby, but we wanted to get as close as we could to bringing her on outdoor adventures.”
On March 20, they set off from the McAfee Knob trailhead in Roanoke County and headed south to Georgia. From there, they traveled to Maine and marched back to McAfee Knob on Sept. 30.
Ellie didn’t even know how to walk when they started. Her parents carried her in a backpack, but Quirin said they often let her out to explore. Creeks and streams were her favorite to play in.
“She’d grab sticks and play in the dirt or mud,” she said. “She was never bored. We didn’t even have to bring any toys.”
The mission of the trip was spending time with Ellie, not necessarily earning any recognition for hiking the trail with a baby. Quirin said that her husband sometimes missed Ellie’s first moments, such as when she first rolled over or said her first word. Being on the trail together was a bonding experience.
“It was great to experience things together instead of me being by myself,” Quirin said. “I have lots of great memories of us together, and that was really special.”
The experience wasn’t without difficulties. The Quirins said the main challenge was Ellie’s added weight on their backs. On one day, the couple hiked so long that the physical strain limited Quirin’s breast milk supply. Upon seeing ill people on the trail, she worried about Ellie catching a stomach bug, although that never happened.
The Quirins encourage other parents to get outdoors with their children. They don’t necessarily have to hike the entire Appalachian Trail — they can go on a day hike or weekend hike.
“You don’t need to go on a thru-hike to have great outdoors memories with your kids,” Bekah Quirin said.
The Quirins are part of local branch of Hike It Baby, an international organization that encourages parents to expose their children to nature through free hikes and urban walks.
Volunteers organize regular hikes in the Roanoke Valley, and the website wwww.hikeitbaby.com maintains a calendar of hikes. Bekah Quirin said typically mothers and their babies will hike during the day and fathers are more likely to go for hikes in the afternoons after work.
“There’s something about putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation,” she said.
“For a baby, it’s playing out in the rain and being happy playing in the rain and learning that it can be fun to play in a mud puddle. They’re going to be OK at the end of the day. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to teach kids about exploration.”